Monday, when HMCS Vancouver sailed out of Esquimalt Harbour, a few
hundred Victorians were expected to wave good-bye. But thousands,
including me, showed up. We coated several kilometers of shoreline.
A gigantic Canadian flag, spread across the lawns, sloped all the
way down to the beach.
When the brass band from the Naval base arrived, the scene took
them by surprise. Seeking a place to stand, they marched single
file through the crowd of sobbing wives and saluting veterans, nodding
to the cheering citizens of all ages who stood waving tiny flags.
Now, I've always considered myself to be a rational person, not
easily moved by emotions, but when a spontaneous chorus of O
Canada spread along the shore like the" wave" familiar
to most sports fans, I found myself choking back tears.
Curiosity, I thought, had drawn me there, but it was, undeniably,
something else that had taken hold. The only word I can find to
describe this unfamiliar feeling is "patriotism."
As I meandered through the crowd, I heard murmurs of "Good
Luck" and "God be with you". I read children's hand-made
signs saying: "Daddy, we love you - come home soon" and
I noticed that some of those more experienced with war, were holding
up their hands, fingers separated and extended in the Churchillian
Notably absent were any expressions of anger and outrage so familiar
to those of my generation - those of us born in peacetime, educated
amidst the Vietnam War protest, and accustomed to a pervasive anti-war
sentiment and a peace-keeper mentality.
While the event was intended as a expression of goodwill for Canada's
war-bound sailors, it seemed evident that with the ongoing anthrax
scare, warnings of a next terrorist attack and the muddle of theories
and arguments about this conflict, what we all needed was something
positive, even uplifting.
It's hard to accept that one can feel good about war but what
we may have to realize is that, right now, we're in no position
to choose between war and peace. If fighting back is what we have
to do, remaining strong is crucial. We have to guard against any
doubts that may weaken our resolve.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons Thobani's feminist rhetoric
of a few weeks back inspired such inflamed reactions. Her questioning
of America's role in the making of the recent tragedies may not
have been totally unreasonable but, under the circumstances, it
was both senseless and pointless.
Similarly, ruminations about the underlying psychological causes
of terrorism only lead us astray. Of what possible significance
is it that Susan Mirow, a specialist in trauma psychiatry and criminal
justice at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, believes that
terrorists like bin Laden are "childhood victims of severe
abuse, emotional neglect, and lack of love." "Terrorists
get a sexual thrill from destruction," she says, and "they
harbor revenge fantasies stemming from their feelings of helplessness,
social disconnectedness, and rage."
Whether Thobani, Mirow or others are on target or way off base
in their analyses, is of no relevance at this time. At the best
of times, their theorizing contributes about as much as counting
angels on a needle's head.
But now, in the worst of times, it's absurd to be considering
an anti-patriarchal solution to the Taliban or therapy for bin Laden.
Trying to understand can be dangerous not just because it distracts
us from reality but also because asking "why" muddles
our thinking and can have the effect of evoking compassion, even
sympathy, for the enemy.
Claude Lanzman, the author of the well-regarded Holocaust documentary
Shoah, claims that to explain evil is to forgive it. "If
you start to explain and to answer the question of Why," he
says, "you are led, whether you want it or not, to its justification."
"Tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner."
I wouldn't go quite so far in dismissing efforts to understand
but I am inclined to believe that asking the question "Why,"
and trying to understand terrorists and their acts is not something
that's constructive for the public to engage in right now.
Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus in psychology at the University
of British Columbia, agrees. Having devoted his career to the study
of ethnopolitical violence, he thinks that there is a time and place
for making a serious effort to understand. "But now is not
that time," he states. "This is the time to stand by a
decision without dithering and to dedicate ourselves to carrying
That seems to be precisely what people were doing here in Victoria
just a few days ago. Likely, it's what people have been doing, and
will continue to do, across Canada as our nation adjusts to the
reality of war.
Patriotism, as I've already admitted, is something new to me.
Having lived my life thus far in peacetime, asking "why"
has been an affordable luxury. But times have changed and so have